Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
“Heroes”

Having emerged more or less psychically shattered from his disastrous sojourn in Los Angeles—where he is said to have subsisted on a diet of cocaine, peppers, and milk—David Bowie took the extraordinary step of relocating himself to West Berlin, that Cold War capital of duplicity, intrigue, and espionage, to escape a galloping case of paranoia. And it was there, having absorbed both the motorik sounds of Krautrock and the ambient explorations of Brian Eno, he produced 1977’s “Heroes,” the only one of his much-touted “Berlin Trilogy” to be wholly recorded in that city.

“Heroes”—which was recorded at Hansa Studio by the Wall a short 500 yards from that deadly monument to the Cold War the Berlin Wall—is art rock at its best, and I’m not just talking about its largely ambient and instrumental B-Side. Bowie didn’t just soak up the sounds of West Berlin, he soaked up its feel, and by so doing bequeathed us an LP that is by turns defiant, taut with menace, and eerily calm. “Heroes” is Bowie the human synthesizer at the top of his game; if any rocker understood T.S. Eliot’s adage that good poets borrow while great poets steal it was the Thin White Duke. But everything he stole he made his own, and this is especially true of the various sonic experiments on “Heroes.”

His ambient exercises, for example, are far more dynamic than those of Eno’s, and I say hooray for that. As for the LPs more traditional cuts, they’re extraordinary. The title track, for example, may be the pinnacle of Bowie’s long and justly celebrated career. Bowie’s vocals, riding atop a mesmerizing but sinuous drone, become increasingly impassioned as the song builds and builds, and the results are utterly enthralling. Nothing else on the LP can top this aching paean to love at the lethal divide between East and West, but Bowie also reaches sublime heights on the driving “Black Out,” with its desperate vocals and great lines, “I just cut and blackout/I’m under Japanese influence and my honor’s at stake!” And then there’s the furious “Joe the Lion,” an odd tribute to the fearless performance artist Chris Burden, who once had himself nailed to his Volkswagon in the name of Kultur. (“Nail me to my car and I’ll tell you who you are.”)

“The Secret Life of Arabia” may not sound particularly Berlin inspired, but I love its big bottom and swinging dance rhythm almost as much as I love the handclaps and singalong that make up its totally captivating second half. The moody “Sons of the Silent Age,” on the other hand, could almost be a throwback to 1971 and Hunky Dory; Bowie plays some sultry sax and both his lyrics and vocal timbre are strictly old school. (Standout lines: “Sons of the silent age/Listen to tracks by Sam Therapy and King Dice.”) Meanwhile, “Beauty and the Beast” boasts a pounding beat, some great guitar by Robert Fripp, and menacingly mechanistic vocals by Bowie. The backing vocals are great too.

“V-2 Schneider” is my favorite amongst the ambient pieces; it partakes of the Autobahn every bit as much as the Kraftwerk member (Florian Schneider) it pays homage to, and Bowie’s saxophone works just swell with the song’s motorik beat. Evidently Bowie led off with the wrong note but just kept going, and good for him says I; perfection is the enemy of inspiration and never forget it. “Neuköln”—which got its name from a suburb of Berlin—also makes me happy, thanks mainly to its big, haunting synthesizer sound and Bowie’s serpentine alto saxophone blurt. Homage to Neuköln’s large Turkish population? Why not? “Sense of Doubt” is noir film soundtrack music of the best sort; someone’s been murdered, and the murderer has lost himself in that rumored set of secret tunnels built beneath the burned-out Reichstag and soon to be bombed out Chancellory by Hitler and his henchmen. As for “Moss Garden,” it has a more contemplative and serene Japanese feel to it, thanks largely to Eno’s ethereal synthesizer work and Bowie’s almost mischievous koto playing.

I would argue that Bowie would never again achieve the masterful heights of “Heroes,” but I’m not really in the mood for arguments. Suffice it to say that “Heroes” marked an extraordinary triumph for a man who not long before had been on a collision course with madness and perhaps even mortality. John the Baptist may have thrived on a diet of locusts and wild honey, but I doubt even he would have lasted very long on a diet of cocaine, peppers, and milk. David Bowie is more my type of prophet, one who emerged from the spiritual desert of Los Angeles to make truly transcendent music about what it really means to find oneself up against the Wall. John le Carré should be proud.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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